I finalize packing this morning, since I leave this afternoon on a 1:05PM flight to Vancouver – the first leg of my Alaska Cruise with Holland America.
We leave for Victoria airport at 10AM, which is incredibly early, but I want to check in and navigate security without having to stress about the new procedures. It is all very easy – all I need is my boarding pass QR code, my passport, and my federal COVID-19 Proof of Vaccination QR code. We take off 5 minutes early at 1:00pm in a Pacific Coastal Airways Beechcraft 1900D (10 rows of 2 seats). Chad is our pilot, Tyrone is our copilot, there is no flight attendant, and there are about a half dozen passengers aboard the flight. Once we arrive at the South Terminal of Vancouver Airport, three of us collect our checked bags and then take a shuttle to the main terminal. I walk back to the Fairmont Vancouver Airport hotel, which is right inside the terminal at the east end and check-in.
Once I unpack a few things, I go downstairs to the bar for some lunch. There are seats right beside the windows that look out on the gates and aircraft aprons, with the North Shore mountains and the City of Vancouver visible in the distance. My lunch is rather expensive ($60 with tip), but I don’t care since I am hungry and feel like a martini to celebrate my first time travelling in over two years. When I return to my room, I freshen up and have a nap. I go for a walk through the pocket park, which is just east of the hotel, located between the main road approach to the terminal (Grant McConachie Way) and the servicing areas for the aircraft. The Canada Line Skytrain runs overhead, but it’s good to get outside for some exercise – the fresh air smells good believe it or not!
My room faces south over the southern 08/26 east-west runway with the South Terminal visible in the distance. The main road approach to the airport is directly below and the Skytrain is there as well. Despite all this, my room is quiet and very comfortable. Since I had a late lunch, I don’t bother with dinner.
It is a lazy morning, but I’m finally motivated to get up and go to the Explorations Cafe for a cappuccino. I sit quietly in a recliner looking out at the flat seas we are currently sailing through off the northern coast of Chile. I try to calm myself and relax, as my mind races through all the scenarios the end of this ill-fated voyage might take.
At 2pm the captain comes on the PA system with an important announcement: “A higher number of passengers with influenza-like symptoms reported to the medical centre this morning. Until further notice all guests need to stay in their rooms, since it is well-proven that this strategy will slow the spread of the virus. All food service in public areas will cease and meals will be delivered directly to passenger staterooms.” This is dreadful news – we are in quarantine!
March 23, 2020 – Day 2 at sea – off the coast of Peru
We wait until 10:30am for our breakfast to appear, and considering the ship’s clock lost an hour early this morning, it was actually 11:30am! Instead of a pot of coffee, we just get two cups, along with eggs, bacon, sausage, fruit, Cheerios and milk. There were also a couple of pancakes, which didn’t look at all appetizing. No doubt, food services staff are scrambling to deliver meals to all 1,300 guests three times a day!
After lunch, the captain announces that Holland America has dispatched the Rotterdam to assist us with any additional staff or supplies we might need until we reach Fort Lauderdale. Rotterdam loaded extra supplies (including COVID-19 test kits) from the now-idle Eurodam and Oosterdam, and is now underway towards us, meeting us on Mar 26th off the coast of Panama. All three ships were located near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Our lunch arrives around 3pm, and consists of chicken breast, rice, vegetables, spring rolls, and salad. A half dozen beer and bottles of red and white wine are also delivered outside our door. So we now have four bottles of wine in our stateroom. Too bad we’re in no mood to party!
A first-stage alarm goes off this afternoon, which turns out to be a small fire in the laundry. It doesn’t go any further, and the captain announces a stand-down for the crew shortly after, and reassures the passengers that the incident is successfully resolved.
The couple from across the hall are thrilled to see out our window while we chat with them (at a distance) with our cabin doors open. They occupy a windowless stateroom, but they seem to be coping pretty well.
March 24, 2020 – Day 3 at sea – off the coast of Peru
Thirteen guests and 29 crew members have fallen ill on board as of yesterday, displaying flu-like symptoms. The captain relates that new cases has fallen dramatically today, since passengers and non-working crew remain in their cabins for the second day. The captain continues to indicate they still want to give at least passengers in inside cabins with no window some brief outside deck access. We would also very much appreciate having access to some fresh air and be able to walk on deck, since our window doesn’t open!
March 25, 2020 – Day 4 at sea – off the coast of Ecuador
The meals being brought to us are very good, but neither of us have an appetite, so we just snack a bit. I can feel myself shutting down – both mentally and physically. I just sit doing nothing…it’s like I can’t achieve focus, despite having lots of tasks I could be doing on my computer, or listening to music or e-books, or watching TV, etc.
Today we get to leave our cabins for the promised fresh air break for those of us who don’t have verandahs. Each group gets 30 minutes outside on deck, which is very much appreciated, even though we have to wear masks and follow other quarantine protocols!
March 26, 2020 – Day 5 at sea – no report
March 27, 2020 – Balboa, Panama
Both the Rotterdam and Zaandam are now anchored in a bay adjacent to Balboa (the Pacific entry point for the Panama Canal), where we continue to await clearance to transit the Canal. Rotterdam will refuel while at anchor.
The captain announces this morning that four passengers have died over the last couple of days. COVID-19 testing has revealed two passengers testing positive. A small number of healthy guests will be moved from Zaandam to the Rotterdam today, with priority being given to inside cabin occupants and those who are over 70. We qualify to be moved to the Rotterdam, so after passing yet another medical test, we’re all packed and waiting for our transfer to happen. We know everyone will continue to be confined to staterooms while on the Rotterdam, but it is still a more promising situation for us.
Later, the captain reports that transfers are delayed since the Rotterdam is still bunkering fuel, although he expects at least some guests will transfer this evening, with the rest of the transfers now delayed until tomorrow. He also reports that new cases reported to the medical centre have levelled off, but he urges all passengers to wear the personal medical masks provided. They are also suspending the fresh air program on the advice of the US CDC.
March 28, 2020 – Balboa, Panama
Wendy and I are transferred to the Rotterdam this morning, since we are both relatively healthy. They continue to transfer healthy passengers from Zaandam to Rotterdam all day using strict medical and cleaning protocols.
Our cabin on the Rotterdam ends up being nearly identical to the one we had on the Zaandam, right down to having the exact same number!
Now we wait for news of our ships being permitted to transit the Panama Canal.
Although Capt. Albert J. Schoonderbeek was not the duty captain on the Rotterdam at the time of our voyage, he was aboard the ship as an “ambassador”. He personally and cheerfully greeted my fellow passengers and I as we climbed the gangway into the ship when we were transferred from the Zaandam. If you are interested in the behind-the-scenes activities the crew carried out on behalf of the passengers, please read his blog.
We arrive in port this morning on time and anchor in the harbour. The fuel barge comes alongside and the bunkering commences. I have breakfast with four other Canadians: a couple from New Brunswick and two women from Orillia and Montreal.
It is a dull and rainy morning in Valparaiso, but I’m hoping it will clear a bit so I can take some panoramic photos of the city later today. Executive Chef Vinod attends the coffee chat this morning, which is proving very popular now that the passengers are bored and can’t leave the ship. He tells us there are 64 chefs and kitchen staff working for 11 hours each day, with breaks between the meals. There are also two chefs who take care of the room service meals 24/7. The kitchens produce 6,000 to 8,000 meals every day.
There is storage for: fruit & vegetables, meats, seafood, dairy. Corporate chefs determine the menus, depending on the ship’s route. In our case, he has full authority to determine our menu on this cruise. There is 15% wastage, especially from Lido. Vegan and vegetarian options are being featured more often. He is working on food planning for the upcoming Canada and New England cruises.
Sure enough, the weather clears in the afternoon, giving us a nice sunny 17°C day, so I spend quite a bit of time on the Lower Promenade Deck. A Sea Lion is sleeping on the bulbous bow of the fuel barge beside us, so passengers take lots of photos, including me!
After dinner I go to see Jamsheed Master play a piano tribute to The Golden Age of Song in the Main Stage. It is a very good performance, and apparently this is one of only 12 live performances with a live audience that is running worldwide today, due to coronavirus crowd restrictions! They are live streaming the performance, but I can’t find the URL to share.
March 21, 2020 – reprovisioning and departing Valparaiso, Chile
I sleep in until almost 9am this morning, since there is nothing to look forward to today. We are still in Valparaiso harbour, and still waiting for the provision loading to complete. I have breakfast with a couple from Spain who are originally from Brazil, and an oriental couple from Australia. Wildfires in Australia and speculation on where we are headed next dominate the conversation. The Australians arrived a few weeks before the ship departed Buenos Aires and visited Peru and Igazu Falls, which they saw from both the Argentina and Brazil sides – on my bucket list.
Our provisions are being barged from shore, so it is a very slow operation, but the captain updates us at noon saying our remaining supplies are on their way and we should be able to depart today at 5pm.
This afternoon, our captain tells us that all our stores are aboard and the ship is full of fuel, so we weigh anchor and once again head north. He shares with us that Plan A will take us through the Panama Canal and onward to Fort Lauderdale with a tentative arrival of March 30th. Should circumstances change, Puerto Vallarta is Plan B and San Diego is Plan C. Complimentary wine is served to everyone at dinner this evening in celebration of our departure from Chile. The captain tells us no Chilean wine will be offered, which amuses the passengers!
I call home before we leave port to let them know where we are and the situation in general terms. I assure them the ship is now sailing as fast as possible northward, with three possible ports currently in play: Fort Lauderdale, Puerto Vallarta, and San Diego.
I have breakfast in the main dining room this morning, and share a table with a woman from Calgary on a small group tour, and a couple from Florida who I shared the breakfast table with yesterday. They spend 6 months in Chicago and 6 months in Florida. He is a retired paediatric dentist.
Bridge report: The ship is on a northerly course offshore from land, proceeding through overcast, misty skies with very light sea conditions and mild temperatures at 14°C. We have 1,256 passengers and 586 crew aboard.
The Secret Language of Ships is presented today by our cruise director Kevin. He talks about hull markings, flags, and whistle blasts.
It is Gala night, so we get dressed up to go for dinner in the main dining room this evening. I have escargot and sea bass for dinner, and a meringue for dessert. We then go up to the Crow’s Nest bar for an after dinner drink. I have a martini, and my friend has single malt scotch.
March 19, 2020 – sailing north to Valparaiso, Chile
The captain updates us this morning on our situation. He tells us we are cleared to load provisions and fuel at Valparaiso, where we are scheduled to arrive at 8:30am tomorrow. Since we will be at anchor, provisioning will take at least 24 hours, considering we need 6-7 shipping containers for our food and supplies for up to a 3 week voyage, although the Captain is quick to point out that our cruise shouldn’t last that long. Once fully provisioned, we will then resume our northerly course, with our final destination still unknown, although I’m sure the captain has plans in place for a few alternatives.
When I join two couples for breakfast this morning, three possible destinations are discussed: Panama, San Diego, or Fort Lauderdale. I would prefer to see us disembark in San Diego, since that would make it relatively easy for Wendy and I to make our way home by either driving a rental car, taking the Amtrak train, or flying through Vancouver. Fort Lauderdale also makes sense, since that is where the cruise was planned to terminate, and the ship is scheduled for a refit in the nearby Bahamas. Panama is the closest port, and has a big airport where we could likely find flights to return to Canada.
I spot some Juan Fernandez Petrels following the ship today. Obviously, we are not too far offshore for them to fly the distance.
I can’t motivate myself to write a blog post for my JoeTourist.ca website. I think many of my friends would be interested in knowing more about my experiences so far on this cruise. I have posted regular updates to Facebook, but a significant number of my friends don’t use social media. We actually accomplished many of our goals early in the cruise, experiencing Buenos Aires, Montevideo, the Falkland Islands (penguins!), Punta Arenas and the Strait of Magellan, and scenic cruising through the Chilean fjords.
Lots of people are taking advantage of the warmer weather to sunbathe either beside the Lido Pool or the Sea View Pool. We have a beautiful sunset over the Pacific Ocean this evening, but no green flash was visible.
The captain announces this morning that Chile has closed its ports to incoming cruise ship traffic due to the just-declared global pandemic (COVID-19), so we are at anchor in Punta Arenas awaiting further information. He made the decision to return to Punta Arenas and end the cruise here, since there are good transportation options for passengers to return home. We shall see how that plays out…I must confess, I’m worried that it has come to this.
Noon – The captain is working with Chilean authorities and he detects some movement with his requests to dock and to disembark passengers here, but he has nothing to formally announce yet. He assures us he will keep us informed.
I go for lunch to the main dining room where I have seafood poutine. This is a first for me, since despite being Canadian, I have never eaten poutine before. It is good, but there is no gravy on the fries. We spot a small whale beside the ship as my table of six eat our lunch.
I’m certainly depressed about this whole scenario. We are less than a mile from shore. The bridge is having to use thrusters to keep the ship from dragging anchor due to the strong winds and currents. When we were docked yesterday, special bracing lines were being used!
We receive an official letter today from Holland America’s President Orlando Ashford, which offers a choice of refunds and/or credits for the cruise. After receiving this letter, I book flights leaving March 18th from Punta Arenas to Santiago, where we will spend three nights before flying Aeromexico on the 21st through Mexico City and Vancouver, arriving in Victoria on WestJet on the 22nd. Everything is confirmed, so now we just have to get off the ship by Wednesday afternoon. Apparently, Holland America will shuttle us to the airport.
I’m up at 7am, get cleaned up and dressed and go to the Explorations Cafe for a cappuccino and a couple of chocolate croissants. I decide I can’t live without an Internet connection while at sea, so I sign up for a plan that will cover me for the entire voyage. It is pretty expensive, but worth it for me, since I can now shut off my Canadian carrier’s data roaming I was using when ashore. I’m finding the on-board Internet is more reliable and faster than previous voyages, so perhaps Holland America has upgraded their satellite system.
After the main dining room opens at 8am, I join a table for six for breakfast and have another cappuccino along with a frittata. I meet a woman from San Diego who is seated across from me, and is an experienced solo traveller, so we have a lot to talk about.
The Captain announces that we are sailing south to the Falkland Islands in uncharacteristically calm seas and winds due to a high pressure system over us. He expects it to break down a bit over the next day and a half, but he isn’t expecting any weather problems, even by the time we arrive in Stanley.
I attend two presentations today. Kevin Saslavchik, the Cruise and Travel Director talks about what we should expect in Port Stanley, and Guido talks about Buenos Aires, describing and showing us the things you may have missed and the history of some of the places you did see. As it turns out, Kevin and Guido are both young Argentinians. Kevin is particularly cute, and has a dry sense of humour. Guido jokes around a bit, especially when describing the foibles of Argentina’s various regimes.
We get dressed up and go for Gala Night dinner in the main dining room. My friend has breast of duck and Rack of Lamb, and I just have the lamb, which is excellent. We both have escargot to start, wine with dinner, and I have a Chocolate Soufflé for dessert.
Since the skies are clear we go up to the Sports Deck (9) to observe the gorgeous Full Moon and then climb up to Deck 10 forward to observe the Southern Cross and an upside-down Orion in the northern sky. There are no lights on Deck 10, making it quite dark. I help a fellow passenger find the Southern Cross, which she is thrilled to see for the first time.
March 11, 2020 – Day 2 at sea
I sleep in until 8:45am this morning, but get cappuccino and pastry at the Explorations Cafe before attending a presentation in the Crow’s Nest Lounge by Seth Wayne on his activities as HAL Ambassador. He is a former Seattle weatherman and news broadcaster, and is responsible for Holland America’s online social media presence. He is a long-time cruiser, and gets to go on 2-week segments of cruises on a regular basis. I then go to the Lido to have a lox omelette for brunch before returning to the Explorations Lounge to work on my notebook computer and catch up with online news and email.
The Port to Table cooking show, hosted by Uruguayan Chef Amandine Bondoux appeals to me this afternoon. She makes two dishes: Pejerrey in Escabeche (a type of ceviche) salty appetizer and Dulce de Leche Rogel – a layered thin cookie with chocolate leche stuffing and Italian meringue on top. The ceviche is made with sautéed vegetables, water, vinegar, oil, and the tuna is cooked in the hot liquid with the vegetables, but the fish is still slightly raw in the centre. This dish can be kept refrigerated for several weeks due to the acidic vinegar, and the flavour improves over time. She makes everything from scratch.
The entertainment in the Main Stage this evening is Celli, two Polish cellists who perform a wide variety of music, from classical, to a Michael Jackson medley, and loud and powerful semi-rock tunes with a 4-piece band backing them up. I enjoy their performance!
I’m on a standard city tour today, with the Carnival Museum added on at the end. We pass the Graf Spee anchor as we leave the harbour for the historic part of the city. As with Buenos Aires, Montevideo’s harbour is on the Plata River estuary, which is the widest river in the world, and is formed from the confluence of the Uruguay and Paraguay Rivers. Montevideo is on the north shore of the Plata River, and Buenos Aires is on the south shore.
Our first stop is the Plaza Independencia, where the impressive Salvo Palace is located. It is a 1930s colonial building designed by Mario Pisner and is now used for offices, residential and a tango museum. The Embassy of Canada is also located on the edge of the plaza, as are both the new and old Presidential buildings, and the impressive Teatre Solis. The centre of the plaza is dedicated to a monument and mausoleum to Uruguayan hero José Artigas. As found in Buenos Aires, Montevideo is full of neoclassical architecture emulating European cities during that era.
Our second stop is to visit the Mercado Agricola de Montevideo, or agricultural market. It is raining, so its nice to have a roof over us as we explore the produce, meat, and seafood being offered for sale. A horse-drawn freight cart goes by on the street outside as I return to the bus.
Our third stop is the Palacio Legislativo – the country’s seat of government. Nearby is a Burj al-Arab hotel lookalike and some nice murals. Our guide Lilianna shares that the price of meat is very low since it is the main industry in the country. Consumption is 100kg/person annually. Maté is a national tea-like drink, which virtually everyone drinks. Sharing maté is a symbol of friendship. There is both private and public health care available, and education is compulsory, with university being free for everyone (even foreigners).
Our final stop is the Plaza de la Armada where we get a good view of Plata river shoreline and city skyline. There is also a nicely-designed bronze monument dedicated to the fallen heroes of the Navy.
The tour wraps up at the Carnival Museum, which is back in the dock area of the city. The focus of this museum is the Candombe dancing, which is one of the most popular Carnival themes followed in the country. We are seated and served wine, baked cheese, and beef (sausage, steak, blood pudding) while we watch the cultural show. Some members of our group get up and dance after being given costumes and props!
I had a good sleep last night and have breakfast in the room. I have lots of time to go to the Explorations Cafe for my all-important cappuccino since my shore excursion doesn’t leave until 10:20am. We start with a city tour in a bus, where we learn Buenos Aires aspired to be “the Paris of South America”. Neoclassic architecture obviously influenced by European design is to be found everywhere in the city. One of the widest streets in the world – Plaza de la Republica is a result of civic leaders ploughing whole city blocks just to emulate the wide streets of Paris. The city also has many huge office towers and other amenities found in all modern cities.
We are then dropped off for our Culinary Walking Tour, where we have a second, local guide to describe all the samples of food, wine and beer as we walk to three local restaurants, representing a variety of the Argentinian meat-focused cuisine:
La Carita Cafe & Bar
Chimichurri – beef sausage on a bun with two sauces
Aperative 14% wine – Bermu or Gancia – sweet
Empanadas – beef and banana
2-wine blend, including a muscat – fruity, dry, white
Sirloin and skirt steak – probably the best steak I’ve ever eaten!
An Italian cheese designed to not run when grilled
Malbec – a robust red wine
Andes Origen – a light-tasting lager beer
Cream Roll Cañitas
Gelato-like ice cream treats
My travel buddy took the subway from the dock area to downtown and found the wool shops she was seeking with help from some very kind locals, but the shops are closed since it is Sunday. She then ends up marching in a parade marking International Woman’s Day, which she found very moving. Guardian article
After yesterday’s stressful road trip to the Harrison’s Cave, I decide to take a day off from driving in favour of relaxing at my rental. Since the pool area was serviced yesterday, I go for a swim this morning while it is still relatively cool. Of course I have the pool to myself, except for the woman sweeping the decks and walkways. I enjoy a post-swim Banks lager beer on the patio while there is still shade this morning.
I get my suitcase out and pack most of my stuff that I don’t need for tomorrow. I decide to take some of the unused food home with me, including the Traditional Bajan sugar, West Indies espresso coffee, a tin of Planters peanuts, and the two chocolate bars from Antigua. I don’t normally buy souvenirs when I travel…my photos and video are my travel keepsakes!
This evening I return to Blakey’s Bar & Restaurant, beside the Hastings Rocks boardwalk for my last dinner in Barbados. The post-sunset view of the beach is awesome, and I’m especially appreciating the warm ocean breezes, since this will be my last evening in the tropics before returning home. I have a Tanqueray Gin & Tonic to start, but like the Martini I had here a couple of nights ago, it is poorly made, but at least it’s cold. I have the grilled Mahi-mahi special, served with pigeon pea rice and two salads – excellent!
The 5,000-passenger MSC Preziosa docks before we anchor, so their passengers are crowding the dock area and the downtown. Some of us walk the few blocks to the town, where there are festivals and busy open air markets. I soon return to the ship to escape the heat and chaos.
An excursion is late returning passengers to the ship, so we depart Kingstown at 2:00PM instead of 12:30PM. I’m concerned, since I have an excursion scheduled for a 2:15PM departure from Bequia, the next island. The Cruise Director assures us the excursion will run, since it is a short trip to Bequia.
I try some roast suckling pig for lunch. The crackly skin is pretty tough and the meat is dry, so I use some gravy to make it edible. There is a 30 knot wind in the harbour by lunch time, and the crossing to Bequia is exceedingly rough, with the ship rolling wildly – passengers are struggling to not crash into things and each other. Welcome to the Windward Islands!
Our Magical Coast of Bequia excursion this afternoon is delayed but still leaves from Port Elizabeth as promised. It isn’t pleasant because of the high winds and being on a speed boat means we are pitching and banging wildly. The crew are constantly asking us to move to a drier part of the boat as they struggle to put up tarps to keep us from getting completely soaked. Nobody can hear the narration describing the sights we are passing because of the roar of the engines and the strong wind.
Moon Hole is one location where the waves and wind subside, so we can actually take some photos and hear the fascinating story behind the place. Nearby is an old whaling station at Sempler’s Cay. Apparently residents of Bequia still have the right to take a whale or two each year, but it hasn’t happened for awhile.
We also go around West Cay to see the airport (unimpressive) before retracing our route. The last stop before we return to the ship is to swim and snorkel at Princess Margaret Beach. Due to the late start, it is almost sunset by the time we arrive, so it is pointless for me (and others) to go in the water, since we won’t see anything and we only have 20 minutes. Some go in for a swim anyway, while the rest of us stay aboard and enjoy the rum punch.
The ship’s servers and kitchen staff all parade through the dining room at dinner this evening, and sing “We Are The World” waving flags as the rest of us wave our napkins. Tomorrow the cruise is over when we dock in Bridgetown, Barbados. After returning to my cabin, I pack everything in my big travel bag, and put it out for the porters to take ashore tomorrow morning. I’m feeling a bit nauseous due to the extreme pitching of the ship as she takes the strong winds on the nose. Once I finish packing and go to bed I am fine, and sleep well.